set to tip off
on Nov. 30
New Jersey Squires
set to tip off
New Jersey Squires
on Nov. 30
BY DOUG McKENZIE
Asbury Park Mayor Kevin Sanders is calling it "another piece to the puzzle" in what he describes as a "renaissance" for the Shore community.
Larry Fishman, the chief operating officer for Asbury Partners, the master developer of the 56-acre Oceanfront Asbury waterfront redevelopment project, added that the "focus of New Jersey is on Asbury Park" — which is the reason why the much-maligned town was chosen for this venture.
But for local basketball fans, the formation of the New Jersey Squires simply provides them with the opportunity to see some very good players extend their playing careers in a league hoping to return to its glory days of the 1970s.
The Squires are the newest member of the American Basketball Association, which is starting anew this season. Die-hard basketball fans will remember the ABA from its original incarnation in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time it was known as the "Outlaw" league, known for the psychedelic red, white and blue basketball and dazzling players like Julius Erving. The ABA folded in 1976, merging with the NBA, which gave berth to the New Jersey Nets.
Now the ABA is making a comeback, and Asbury Park will be home to the league’s only East Coast representative.
"We love that we’ll now have a sporting event that we won’t have to drive up to the Meadowlands to see," Mayor Sanders said.
The Squires’ owner, Wayne Butler, a 50-year-old former college player from Conshohocken, Pa., believes that both the Squires, and the ABA as a whole, will be a success due to the caliber of talent the league will attract.
"There is a lot of excitement permeating the league," he said. "And we are happy and excited to be part of the revitalization of Asbury Park."
"Bringing a professional sports into the mix of events in Asbury Park has always been part of revitalization," Fishman added. "Having this ABA team here makes it possible for area residents to experience professional basketball right in their own back yard."
The Squires, who will play their home games at Convention Hall and will host the league’s inaugural all-star game at the end of March, are still weeks away from holding their first practice, but will have their first home game on Nov. 30. Their schedule will include 36 games, two each against the other seven teams in the league — the Kansas City Knights, Long Beach (Calif.) Jam, Tijuana Diablos, the Gallos de Pelea Juarez, the Las Vegas Rattlers and the Fresno Heat.
However, Butler added that the league will likely add four to five teams next season, as it continues to expand.
While the Squires’ roster is still not set, Butler has selected a coaching staff, which will be led by Ricky Benitez, who played for the Puerto Rican national team in two Olympics, and has numerous head coaching experiences on his résumé — most recently as the coach of the Brevard Blue Ducks in the United States Basketball League (USBL).
Benitez said that he met Butler when he was trying to find a home for the Squires in Trenton — a venture which failed when Butler was never able to negotiate a lease with Comcast Spectacor, owner of the Sovereign Bank Arena.
"He’s familiar with what I’ve been doing, and this sounds like a perfect fit for me," Benitez said. "Things are going great thus far, and I can’t wait to get started."
Benitez added that he has most of the roster in place, though the team is still trying to finalize the acquisition of a couple of players. The Squires, like every other team in the ABA, must work within a $120,000 salary cap for players each year, in addition to rent for Convention Hall, which will be around $2,200 per game.
Leading the list of players currently on the roster is a young man who is no stranger to headlines — Richie Parker. Parker was one of the top high school recruits in the nation, despite pleading guilty to first-degree sexual assault of a female student at Manhattan Center High School.
Parker, who received five years’ probation as part of a settlement, eventually signed to play at Long Island University, where he was the team’s top scorer, and was one of the Northeast Conference’s top players, playing his last season for the Blackbirds in 1999-2000.
Now, at age 27 and two years removed from a season with the USBL’s Atlantic City franchise, Parker is anxious to be part of the Squires’ inaugural season.
"I spoke to coach Benitez and it sounded like a good situation for me," he said. "It’s a new start and is something I want to be a part of. It’s a good opportunity to use as a stepping stone to where I want to be — the NBA."
Another player who will be featured on the Squires is Red Bank’s Andrew Toole, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and a Christian Brothers Academy alumnus (class of ’98).
The 6-3 swingman, who led his team to the NCAA tournament the last two years and averaged 11 points-per-game in his senior season, is equally excited about the launch of the new team, though he is keeping the entire experience in perspective.
"I was working at Rebounds in Neptune and I met coach Benitez when he came in to ask about using the facility for practices," Toole said. "After talking with him and working out for him, he thought I’d have a good shot to play for the Squires. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
"The team looks promising, and it’s a good chance for me to extend my playing career," he added.Benitez, who is assisted by Joseph Medina, said that Toole will be one of the Squires’ key players this season, along with Parker and another player from New York, Rafael Edwards.
"Andrew will be a great asset to this team, no question," he said.
Butler said that on top of being winners, he has set some specific expectations for his players, as the team finalizes its roster.
"A basketball player, or any professional athlete for that matter, is a role model, whether they want to be or not," he said. "If any player does not have the high standards of being an outstanding and productive citizen, they will not be part of my franchise. You have a responsibility when you play for my franchise."
As the start of their inaugural season approaches, the Squires organization is putting all of its efforts toward promoting the team and creating an identity within Asbury Park.
"We plan to be very visible, active and involved in the community," Butler said, adding that the franchise will stress helping local youths with their education.
The Squires will need that community support if they hope to be more successful than the Convention Hall’s previous tenant, the Jersey ShoreCats of the USBL. The ShoreCats folded in 2000 following their third season.
The ShoreCats averaged about 1,500 fans per game in their first season, after a longer and more pronounced seven-month advertising campaign. For the Squires, it will be a challenge, to say the least, although a winning team will go a long way toward building interest in the team.
Tickets for Squires games will be priced between $8-$10 on average, and will be available starting Nov. 15 at the Paramount Theater box office.
For more information about the New Jersey Squires, call (732) 897-1911.